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Does James contradict sola fides (salvation by faith alone)? A closer look at James 2:14-26

By Eric Johnson

This article includes a verse-by-verse analysis of James 2:14-26. In doing this, we will compare the King James Version (the official version of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and the English Standard Version while providing information from several commentaries to help decipher the meaning of the passages. The two main commentaries will be:

Douglas J. Moo, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, 1985).

Donald W. Burdick (Frank E. Gaebelein, general editor), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981).

Introduction

When a Christian cites Ephesians 2:8-9—a great passage to use when describing justification by faith alone—one of most common response by Latter-day Saints is making a reference to James 2:14-26. Does what James say in these verses contradict the teaching of Paul and sola fides (salvation by faith alone)?

James 2:14-26

2:14

KJV: What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?

ESV: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

In the KJV, “can faith save him?” may be misleading by making it appear that faith does not save. In the second question that is asked, the construction of the sentence could better be put, “Such a faith (without works) can’t possibly save a person, could it?”

I have often heard Mormons ask, “Isn’t James contradicting Paul?” The answer is no. After all, Paul wrote these verses in Romans 6:

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

He then went on to explain:

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

The word “save” in James 2:14 refers to a person’s faith that produces good works as proof that his or her faith in Christ is genuine. We must understand that Paul was attempting to counter antinomianism and the legalism of his day, with the idea that keeping the dietary and circumcision laws would somehow equate to justification before God.

At this point, let’s discuss the difference between justification and sanctification because understanding these concepts determines how the passage ought to be interpreted.

Justification

According to the apostle Paul, justification comes “by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28). We are forever changed in God’s sight through His work, not ours, and all our sins are forgiven. Sanctification, on the other hand, takes place for the rest of our Christian lives. As Philippians 2:12 puts it, we need to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Clearly we are to work out and not work for our salvation. 

First and foremost, salvation is a gift given by God Himself, as James himself states in 1:17-18:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

The idea is described by Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Paul also wrote in Titus 3:4-7,

4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

Using the example of Abraham in Romans 4:1-5, Paul explained,

1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. 5 However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.

Verse 13 adds, “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.”

Abraham is also cited in Galatians 3:2-6:

2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? 5 So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? 6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

James also brings up Genesis 15:6 when he said,

20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

By this, James is not saying justification does not take place by faith. Instead, he says that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” However, when a person receives grace and is forgiven of all sins, the person’s life goes through a metamorphosis, a concept discussed in 2 Corinthians 5:17. In fact, the Holy Spirit makes it possible for a person to become a new creation in Christ where old things have passed away and all things become new.

The key is the Holy Spirit. When a person has faith, the Holy Spirit empowers a person to become a child of God. John 1:12-13 says, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” In Romans 8, Paul wrote,

9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Then, the very same Paul continued to write the following:

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

This leads us into the next area of salvation.

Sanctification

The Bible teaches that justification is a free gift based not on our works (past, present, or future). Yet what about good works?

In James 2, Pastor John MacArthur points out that, in verse 14, the verbs are in the present tense (“if a man says he has faith, but he has no works”). James did not say the person had genuine faith but rather claimed to have faith. MacArthur writes,

“No less than five times in that passage (vv. 14, 17, 20, 24, 26), James reiterates his thesis: passive faith is not efficacious faith. It is a frontal attack on the empty profession of those whose hope is in a dormant faith. . . .  They describe someone who routinely claims to be a believer yet continuously lacks any external evidence of faith” (Faith Works, 148).

The Bible teaches that Christians are justified by faith but sanctified through good works. Consider, for instance, Titus 3:3-7, where Paul wrote that God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” Yet notice what he says in verse 8:

The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.

How about Ephesians 2:8-9 where Paul said that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. Do these verses negate the need for good works? Keep reading in verse 10:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Right after Paul said that it’s not possible to be saved by good works, he then taught that Christians were created to do good works. If a person believes that James contradicts Paul, does he think that Paul then contradicts himself?

Throughout Paul’s writing, the importance of displaying good works is emphasized as a way to show that the Spirit is really alive in a person’s life. In Galatians 5:17, Paul describes the characteristics of a person who lives according to the flesh: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” He then contrasts these with the fruit of the Spirit in verses 18-23:

18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law

Verses 24-25 make Paul’s case:

24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.

MacArthur explained,

“James could not be more explicit. He is confronting the concept of a passive, false ‘faith,’ which is devoid of the fruits of salvation. He is not arguing for works in addition to or apart from faith. He is showing why and how true, living faith always works. He is fighting against dead orthodoxy and its tendency to abuse grace (Faith Works, 154).

Second Corinthians 5:17 says that when we become new creations in Christ, “old things have passed away and all things become new.” A complete metamorphosis takes place that is supernatural in origin.

In other words, what James is saying in James 2 is no different than what Paul said in his epistles. Citing Romans 8:3-4 and its reference to how “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us…according to the Spirit,” John Piper writes that more than just a future promise of heaven was accomplished in justification:

“Christ accomplished for us the condemnation that the law demands so that he might accomplish in us the sanctification that the law commands…When God put Christ in our condemned place, he did this not only to secure heaven, but to secure holiness. Or even more precisely, not only to secure our life in paradise, but also to secure our love for people” (Providence, 626).

Those good works performed by Christians are possible only through the work of the Spirit. These works are impossible without the power of the Holy Spirit. At conversion, the Christian receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit who, as 2 Corinthians 5:5 says, is the “guarantee” for forgiveness of sins (Gal. 3:1-5; 4:6). According to biblical teaching, anyone who does not possess the authentic Spirit of God is not a saved individual and should not be considered a Christian.

As Paul writes in Galatians 5:18, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” And then the works of the flesh—those things in verses 19-21—are prominent in the lives of those who “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Meanwhile, the fruit of the spirit is the indicator that a person truly has the Holy Spirit in his or her life. Verses 22-23 describe those things that ought to characterize the true believer because, as verse 24 puts it, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Thus, Paul prompts, “if we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”

Another term used in the Bible is the importance of being filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). Unlike baptism of the Spirit, the filling of the Holy Spirit is a continuous pursuit. As Christians live their lives, they must be constantly refilled like a car that needs gasoline or a human who requires food.

Indeed, Paul and James are on the same page. As Douglas J. Moo puts it, “Therefore, while James’ own view of faith does not differ from that found in Paul and the rest of the New Testament (cf. 1:6; 2:1,5; 5:5), in 2:14-26 ‘faith’ often refers to ‘bogus’ faith that neither Paul nor James would regard as genuine Christian faith” (Moo, 100). He continues, “Paul denies that works can have any value in bringing us into relationship with God; James is insisting that, once that relationship is established, works are essential” (Moo, 101).

This commentary will hopefully allow us to better approach the rest of the chapter in James.

2:15-16

KJV: 15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

ESV: 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

The KJV translation of the Greek “gymnoi” as “naked” (translated “poorly clothed” in the ESV) is an accurate rendering, showing this needs to be taken as hyperbole. Perhaps “poorly clothed” does not even do justice to what James is trying to get across. This, then, is a desperate situation. The term “go in peace” is a common way to say “goodbye” in Judaism and, as the NEB and Phillips paraphrase puts it, could mean “good luck to you.”

As Moo explains:

“Isaiah called the people of his day to put real meaning into their religious rituals ‘by sharing bread with the hungry,’ ‘bringing in the homeless into their houses’ and ‘covering the naked’—then God will answer when they call (Is. 58:7-9). Jesus promised the kingdom to those who feed and clothe ‘the least of these my brethren’ (Mt. 25:31-46). And John denies that anyone who fails to provide for a brother in need can have real love; for love is found not ‘in word or speech but in deed and in truth’ (1 Jn. 3:17-18). . . . Words—sermons, prayers, confessions of faith, wise advice, encouragement—are indispensable to true Christianity. But they are shown to have real meaning, James reminds us, when people can see actions that correspond to those words” (Moo, 103).

2:17

KJV: Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

ESV: So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Many years ago, I regularly heard a term used by some Latter-day Saints. The word was “gracer,” which conveyed the idea that a person could walk down the church aisle and proclaim Jesus as Lord but then willfully commit murder and adultery with no remorse and still be a “Christian.” The term was meant as a mockery of salvation by grace through faith alone. I believe this is a false stereotype, as both Paul and James would say those who profess Christianity but are not convicted of their sins were never justified in the first place.

I like how Douglas Moo put it: “The contrast is not, then, between faith and works, but between a faith that ‘has works and a faith that does not have works. The latter is, like a body without a spirit (cf. 2:26), lifeless and profits one nothing on the day of judgment” (Moo, 103-104).

Donald W. Burdick writes,

“Action is the proper fruit of living faith. Because life is dynamic and productive, faith that lives will surely produce the fruit of good deeds. Therefore, if no deeds are forthcoming, it is proof that the professed faith is dead. Notice that James does not deny that it is faith. He simply indicates that it is not the right kind of faith. It is not living faith, nor can it save” (Burdick, 183).

And John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck put it this way:

“Workless faith is worthless faith; it is unproductive, sterile, barren, dead! Great claims may be made about a corpse that is supposed to have come to life, but if it does not move, if there are no vital signs, no heartbeat, no perceptible pulse, it is still dead. The false claims are silenced by the evidence” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 825).

2:18

KJV: Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

ESV: But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

Who is the “someone” referenced here? Because the Greek does not use quotation marks, it’s unclear. It seems that there are three possibilities:

  1. The person is an ally of James
  2. The person is an objector casting doubt on the reality of James’s faith
  3. There are two different individuals—the first saying that one person has faith and another saying he has works. A second person comes in and takes up James’s case.

As Burdick puts it,

“Perhaps it is best to paraphrase the quotation as follows: ‘One person has faith; another has deeds.’ The statement then becomes an assertion that faith and works are not necessarily related to each other and that it is possible to have either one without the other (Tasker, pp. 64-66). To this assertion James responds with a challenge: ‘Show me your faith without deeds.’ The implication is that faith cannot be demonstrated apart from action. Faith is an attitude of the inner man, and it can only be seen as it influences the actions of the one who possesses it. Mere profession of faith proves nothing as to its reality; only action can demonstrate faith’s genuineness” (Burdick, 183).

Moo writes,

“Genuine faith cannot exist without works. When James says to the objector, Show me your faith apart from your works, he is not simply challenging him to give evidence for his faith—he is suggesting that the faith the objector claims to have is not faith at all” (Moo, 106. Italics in the original).

James is suggesting that a person who claims to have faith without works has a dead faith. A person is shown to be righteous through good works and not by faith alone.

2:19

KJV: Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

ESV: You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!

The most important verse in the Bible concerning God is Deuteronomy 6:4, which says, “Hear O Israel. The Lord thy God, the Lord is one.” Every week in synagogue services around the world, this verse is cited. It is also a vital concept in Christianity and was cited by Jesus in Mark 12.

While it’s important to have correct theology and believe in one God, this is something even the demons believe! They have a head knowledge, yet this does not translate to their heart belief. What good is that type of faith? None, says James, who says more than just intellectual faith is required by God for a person to be called a Christian. As Moo writes,

“This verse indicates quite plainly that the faith that James speaks about in these verses is very far from the full Christian faith that both he and Paul proclaimed. As important as correct doctrine is, no-one in the early church considered it sufficient for salvation. Genuine faith must go beyond the intellect to the will; Mitton says, ‘It is a good thing to possess an accurate theology, but it is unsatisfactory unless that good theology also possesses us’” (Moo, 107).

Burdick explains,

“James commends his Jewish Christian readers for believing ‘that there is one God.’ This is ‘good!’ That God is one was a basic truth of Jewish orthodoxy, but such acceptance of a creed is not enough to save a person. . . . Saving faith, then, is not mere intellectual acceptance of a theological proposition. It goes much deeper, involving the whole inner man and expressing itself outwardly in a changed life” (Burdick, 183. Ellipsis mine).

John MacArthur writes, “Orthodox doctrine by itself is not proof of saving faith. Demons affirm the oneness of God and tremble at its implications, but they are not redeemed” (Faith Works, 151).

Talking about the way of love, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3:

1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

In other words, it is possible to have basic theology correct—including speaking in tongues with prophetic powers and knowledge as well as “faith”—but if that person is missing love, it is null and void. James is saying that a belief in one God is insufficient because sanctification is also needed. James D.G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson write,

“It is easy to imagine diaspora Jews (in this case Jewish Christians) priding themselves on their monotheistic belief as though that alone were sufficient to justify them in God’s sight. This need not be a doctrine at all but merely an attitude into which James knew that it was all too easy to slip. His concern is wholly to convince such people that belief in God is no substitute for practical love of the neighbor in need” (Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, 1488).

Let’s be careful here. James is not saying that faith is not important. Rather, he is merely stating that works are evidence of the faith that one professes to have.

2:20

KJV: But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

ESV: Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

When it comes to the question, “Can a Christian have faith but not works?” neither Paul nor James (nor any other New Testament author, for that matter) ever minimized the importance of works in the genuine Christian life. In James 1:22, James wrote, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

I like how Moo put it: “James’ choice of the word here creates a pointed play on words: ‘faith that has no works does not work’!” (Moo, 107). This concept is the centerpiece of this section of James.

And it’s the same as what the rest of the scripture talks about. For instance, Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). Verse 16 adds, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”

The apostle John, meanwhile, is on the same page when he wrote 1 John 3:

4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.

The problem with the idea that good works causes a person to become justified in God’s sight is that nobody can do everything that the Bible says must be done. After all, James 2:10 (written just before the passage describing how faith without works is dead) says this: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” And Galatians 3:10 says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’”

So it’s a hard line. Either you are keeping all the commandments of God or you are not. If the Latter-day Saint is correct in saying that we are truly justified by works and not by faith alone, then I ask, “So how are you doing at that?” By this we can see that the concept of showing one’s faith by their actions is not unique to James.

2:21

KJV: Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

ESV: Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?

In verse 14, we spent time discussing what the word “justify” meant. Paul made justification by faith the centerpiece of his argument in Romans and Galatians. We should point out that, in the King James Version and English Standard Version, James 2:21 uses “justified by works,” as the KJV puts it: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” So what does the word “justify” mean in the context of James 2:21?

As I was working on this article, a Catholic wrote to me and asked, “If a man is justified by faith alone, why does James say the opposite here in this verse?” This, then, is not just a Mormon issue. Just what does James mean when he says “justified by works”? Douglas Moo writes,

“But what is important to recognize is that Paul gives to the term justification a very distinct meaning, one that is closely related to his whole theological perspective. He designates with this language the initial transfer of a person from the realm of sin and death to the realm of holiness and life. This transfer takes place by virtue of the sinner’s identification, by faith, with Jesus Christ, ‘the righteous one.’ For Paul, then, justification is a sovereign, judicial act in which God, apart from any human ‘work,’ declares the sinner to be innocent before him (Rom. 4:5)” (Moo, 109).

Here are some citations that might be helpful:

Wayne Grudem:

“Our interpretation of James 2 depends not only on the fact that ‘show to be righteous’ is an acceptable sense for the word justified, but also on the consideration that this sense fits well in the context of James 2. When James says, ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?’ (v. 21) he is referring to something later in Abraham’s life, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, which occurred in Genesis 22. This is long after the time recorded in Genesis 15:6 where Abraham believed God ‘and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ Yet this earlier incident at the beginning of Abraham’s covenantal relationship with God is the one that Paul quotes and repeatedly refers to in Romans 4. Paul is talking about the time God justified Abraham once for all, reckoning righteousness to him as a result of his faith in God. But James is talking about something far later, after Abraham had waiting many years for the birth of Isaac, and then after Isaac had grown old enough to carry wood up the mountain for a sacrifice. At that point Abraham was ‘shown to be righteous’ by his works, and in that sense James says that Abraham was ‘justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar’ (James 2:21) (Systematic Theology, 731-732).

Walter Elwell:

“What is vital, then, is to see that Paul and James are using the key word justify with different meanings. When Paul uses the word justify, he designates the initial acceptance of the sinner before God—the solely gracious act whereby God, the Judge of all the world, considers us ‘right’ before him because of our identification with Christ (see Rom. 4:5). James, on the other hand, uses ‘justify,’ as was typical in Judaism, of the ultimate verdict of acquittal rendering over our lives. . . . While Paul, then, asserts that a person is initially declared righteous only through faith, James insists that our ultimate acquittal in the judgment depends on the evidence of true faith—works. And, as James makes clear, true faith will, by its very nature, produce those works that will acquit us at the judgment. So, while faith and works must be kept distinct, they must also not be separated” (Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, 1157).

Moo:

“But what is important to recognize is that Paul gives to the term justification a very distinct meaning, one that is closely related to his whole theological perspective. He designates with this language the initial transfer of a person from the realm of sin and death to the realm of holiness and life. This transfer takes place by virtue of the sinner’s identification, by faith, with Jesus Christ, ‘the righteous one.’ For Paul, then, justification is a sovereign, judicial act in which God, apart from any human ‘work,’ declares the sinner to be innocent before him (Rom. 4:5)” (Moo, 109).

Moo went on to say,

“James asserts that Abraham did works and that these works were used as criteria in God’s ultimate judgment over Abraham’s life. He assumes that Abraham had faith and that this faith was basic to Abraham’s acceptance by God (vv. 22-23). But he stresses that the life of the one who has been so accepted by God must show the fruit of that relationship in good works. It was what precedes and enables these works that Paul concentrates on. Paul wants to make clear that one gets ‘into’ God’s kingdom only by faith; James insists that God requires works from those who are ‘in‘” (Moo, 110).

Grudem:

“Our interpretation of James 2 depends not only on the fact that ‘show to be righteous’ is an acceptable sense for the word justified, but also on the consideration that this sense fits well in the context of James 2. When James says, ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?’ (v. 21) he is referring to something later in Abraham’s life, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, which occurred in Genesis 22. This is long after the time recorded in Genesis 15:6 where Abraham believed God ‘and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ Yet this earlier incident at the beginning of Abraham’s covenantal relationship with God is the one that Paul quotes and repeatedly refers to in Romans 4. Paul is talking about the time God justified Abraham once for all, reckoning righteousness to him as a result of his faith in God. But James is talking about something far later, after Abraham had waiting many years for the birth of Isaac, and then after Isaac had grown old enough to carry wood up the mountain for a sacrifice. At that point Abraham was ‘shown to be righteous’ by his works, and in that sense James says that Abraham was ‘justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar’ (James 2:21)” (Systematic Theology, 731-732).

Walter Elwell:

“What is vital, then, is to see that Paul and James are using the key word justify with different meanings. When Paul uses the word justify, he designates the initial acceptance of the sinner before God—the solely gracious act whereby God, the Judge of all the world, considers us ‘right’ before him because of our identification with Christ (see Rom. 4:5). James, on the other hand, uses ‘justify,’ as was typical in Judaism, of the ultimate verdict of acquittal rendering over our lives. . . . While Paul, then, asserts that a person is initially declared righteous only through faith, James insists that our ultimate acquittal in the judgment depends on the evidence of true faith—works. And, as James makes clear, true faith will, by its very nature, produce those works that will acquit us at the judgment. So, while faith and works must be kept distinct, they must also not be separated” (Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, 1157).

John Calvin:

“It appears that [James] is speaking of the manifestation, not of the imputation of righteousness, as if he had said, Those who are justified by faith prove their justification by obedience and good works, not by a bare and imaginary semblance of faith. In one word, he is not discussing the mode of justification, but requiring that the justification of all believers shall be operative. And as Paul contends that men are justified without the aid of works, so James will not allow any to be regarded as Justified who are destitute of good works. . . . Let them twist the words of James as they may, they will never extract out of them more than two propositions: That an empty phantom of faith does not justify, and that the believer, not contented with such an imagination, manifests his justification by good works” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, 3:17:12 (reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1966), 2:115).

2:22

KJV: Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

ESV: You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;

Burdick writes,

“Here James makes it clear that he is not talking about works as the sole source of Abraham’s justification, as v. 21 taken out of its context might lead one to believe. Instead, Abraham’s ‘faith and his actions were working together.’ Faith and works are inseparable. It is not possible for one person to have valid faith without works and for another to have genuine works without faith, as James’ opponent argued in v. 18. . . . Faith, then, is the means of obtaining justification, but by its very nature it is faith that produces deeds. In this sense Abraham’s faith was validated by his deeds. . . . If there had been no good deeds forthcoming, his faith would not have been genuine; and therefore it would not have been counted to him for righteousness” (Burdick, 184. Ellipsis mine).

Moo writes,

“If verse 21 has given the impression that James is interested only in Abraham’s works, this verse shows that James has presumed Abraham’s faith all along. We should recall that it is the nature of Abraham’s faith, a faith that is not ‘barren’ (v. 20), that James wants to illustrate. . . . .This constant co-operation of faith and works is highlighted with the use of the imperfect tense of the verb, a tense that connotes continual or repeated action. ‘Faith’ was not something that Abraham exercised on one occasion; it stimulated, directed and co-operated with his works” (Moo, 111-112).

2:23

KJV: And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.

ESV: and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.

Genesis 15:6 says, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”

“It was not that Abraham earned the favor of God by obeying him; instead, he acted as a friend of God should act and thus showed that he was in reality God’s friend” (Burdick, 185).

“There is no need, then, to think that James views Genesis 15:6 as a prophecy that was ‘fulfilled’ later in Abraham’s career. What he is suggesting, rather, is that this verse found its ultimate significance and meaning in Abraham’s life of obedience. When Abraham ‘put faith in’ the Lord, God gave him, then and there, the status of a right relationship with him; before he had done works, before he was circumcised. This Paul brings out forcefully (Rom. 4:1-17)” (Moo, 113).

“James introduces a second result of Abraham’s active faith; he was called the friend of God. RSV separates this statement from the quotation of Genesis 15:6, implying that it is not a second scriptural text. This is appropriate, since the phrase is nowhere found in the Old Testament. However, two Old Testament verses call Abraham ‘the one loved by God’ (2 Ch. 20:7; Is. 41:8; cf. also Is. 51:2 and Dn. 3:35 LXX, cf JB) and the title was a popular one for Abraham in intertestamental literature. James cites it as an indication of the privileged status Abraham was given on account of his deep faith and practical obedience” (Moo, 114).

“For Paul (in Rom 4 and Gal 3), the critical issue is that Abraham was declared righteous in Genesis 15:6, which comes chronologically before the institution of circumcision in Genesis 17. Since ritual law is the issue for Paul, the fact that Genesis 15 comes after significant acts of obedience by Abraham (such as leaving Haran to journey to Palestine) is not problem. For James, on the other hand, the critical issue is that that declaration of actual righteousness in Genesis 22:12 shows that the faith referred to in Genesis 15:6 is not mere orthodoxy but a trust leading to actual righteous deeds, so that ‘[his] faith worked together with his deed and the faith was completed by the deeds’ (Jas 2:22). In other words the two men come at the Abraham narrative from different directions, using different definitions of faith, and as a result argue for complementary rather than contradictory conclusions” (Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 697).

“James, on the one hand, is asking how God knew Abraham was righteous when he made the statement in Genesis 22:12 and how the reader can know that the faith in Genesis 15:6 was a trust that actually made Abraham righteous. The answer is—from his deeds. And without such deeds any claim of righteousness or of faith is empty. Paul, on the other hand, is pointing out that both Jews and Gentiles are equally short of God’s standard of righteous judgment, and thus the issue is how God will make the unrighteous righteous. The answer is—not through cultic ritual but through commitment to (faith in) Jesus Christ. The two authors use their terms different ways because they address different issues” (Hard Sayings of the Bible, 698).

William Mounce writes,

“In Romans 4:3, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 and the example of Abraham to show that justification is by faith. . . ‘Justification’ is the doctrine that we are declared not guilty of our sins and therefore ushered into a relationship with God. It’s one of Paul’s centra teachings that we are made right before God not by what we do but by what we believe about who Jesus is and what he did. James likewise cites Genesis 15:6 and the example of Abraham (Jas 2:23), but he uses it to show that justification is by works, that we are justified by what we do. This apparent contradiction is so pronounced that ever since the early centuries, the church questioned whether the book of James should even be in the Bible, and Martin Luther was famous for his dislike of the book.

The solution is simple. To be declared ‘righteous’ and to be ‘justified’—both English words translate the same Greek word—can describe both the process of becoming righteous and the living of a righteous life. Paul is emphasizing how one becomes righteous by faith, and James is explaining how one lives a righteous life, a life that in turn demonstrates that the person has true faith. Paul’s Jewish audience believed a person was made right with God by doing certain things, like being circumcised, following Sabbath laws (what one could or couldn’t do on Saturday), and giving money to the temple. Paul’s response is to say that being made right with God is a matter of faith. In contrast, James is addressing a different situation in which his audience is claiming they can have faith, but their faith is not changing their lives. His response is to argue that faith that is not accompanied by ‘deeds,’ by the actions of a changed life, is a dead and useless faith (Jas 2:26)” (Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have About the Bible, 47-48).

2:24

KJV: Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

ESV: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

“First, we must recognize that Paul’s ‘faith’ and James’ ‘faith alone’ are entirely different concepts. Paul has a strongly dynamic concept of faith, by which the believer is intimately united with Christ, his Lord, and which includes a commitment of obedience to the Lord. Thus Paul can speak of ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5) and say that it is ‘faith working through love’ that avails in Christ (Gal. 5:6). In other words, faith for Paul includes the commitment to obedience; it is confessing that Jesus is Lord that is the true content of faith and that brings salvation and justification (Rom. 10:9-10)” (Moo, 114-115).

“That little word ‘only’ that James adds to ‘faith’ makes all the difference: it shows that James has no intention of excluding faith from the process of justification. He was deeply disturbed, however, by a faith that had no consequences for life—what we may call ‘cheap faith.’ Faced with this tendency, James had to place great stress on the active nature of faith and to assert that actions did matter in the long run. Paul was faced with a very different problem. His Jewish and judaizing opponents considered works done in obedience to God as a sufficient basis to maintain their place in God’s covenant. Against them, Paul asserted that the covenant on which they relied was, in effect, broken and that faith in Christ was the only way that one could now be made right with God” (Moo, 115).

“Whenever people rely on their religious activities for salvation, Paul’s powerful plea for a radical commitment of the whole person to Christ must be vigorously proclaimed. But when ‘faith’ has been turned into nothing more than a verbal commitment to certain doctrines, James’ understanding of faith as an active, vigorous obedience must be forcefully reasserted” (Moo, 116).

“In this summary statement James assumes that a person is justified by faith but “not by faith alone.” It is by faith and “by what he does.” Taken by itself, this declaration may seem blatantly contradictory to such Pauline statements as that of Ephesians 2:8-9. If both passages are studied in context, however, the seeming contradiction disappears. James has indicated that deeds complete faith (v. 22). They present in a person’s life (v. 18). James was combating a superficial faith that had no wholesome effect in the life of the professed believer. Paul, on the other hand, was combating legalism—the belief that one may earn saving merit before God by his good deeds. Consequently Paul insisted that salvation is not by works but by faith alone. However, the following context of the Ephesians passage (2:10) reveals that Paul did not depreciate good works. . . . In Paul, therefore, as well as in James, good deeds are the product of genuine faith. In both writers faith that produces no good deeds is incapable of saving a person” (Burdick, 185).

“The NIV’s and NLT’s translation of James 2:24 is brilliant. Most other translations read, ‘a person is justified by works” (ESV, CSB, NRSV, NET, NASB), making the contradiction seem more obvious. The NIV reads, ‘a person is considered righteous by what they do,; and the NLT reads, ‘we are shown to be in the right with God by what we do.’ These two translations make it clear that James is not contradicting Paul” (Mounce, Why I Trust the Bible)

“Here we must realize that James is using the word justified in a different sense from the way Paul uses it. In the beginning of this chapter we noted that the word justify has a range of meanings, and that one significant sense was ‘declare to be righteous,’ but we should also notice that the Greek word dikaioo can also mean “demonstrate or show to be righteous” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 731).

2:25

KJV: Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?

ESV: And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

“Although her faith was like that of Abraham, she was unlike the patriarch in almost every other way. She had been a pagan; she was a woman; and she was a prostitute. Nevertheless, she chose to become identified with the people of Israel, a decision based on faith (cf. Josh 2:8-13; Heb 11:31). Far from being dead or worthless, her faith moved her to risk her life to protect the spies. As a result, ‘even’ (kai) the prostitute was declared righteous. James does not give approval to Rahab’s former life; it is her living faith, seen against the background of her previous immortality, he comments” (Burdick, 185).

“But both the patriarch and the prostitute are declared righteous on the basis of works that issued from their faith” (Moo, 117)

2:26

KJV: For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

ESV: For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

“James does not imply that deeds are the actual life principle that gives life to faith, but only that faith and deeds are inseparable. If there are no acts springs from faith, that faith is no more alive than ‘the body without the spirit’” (Burdick, 185).

“Again we see that James is concerned not that works be ‘added’ to faith but that one possess the right kind of faith, ‘faith that works.’ Without that kind of faith Christianity becomes a barren orthodoxy and loses any right to be called faith” (Moo, 117).

“There is, then, no real conflict between James and Paul on the issue of works. Just as his use of ‘faith’ is different from James’s, so is Paul’s use of ‘works’ different. Not only does Paul always use a phrase James never uses, but in places such as Galatians 5:19-21 he can list evil deeds (similar to James’s list in 3:14-16) and then say, ‘I warn you [now] as I did [earlier] that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ Paul will not separate moral righteous from eternal salvation” (Hard Saying of the Bible, 698).

“O it is a living, busy active mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works” (Martin Luther, preface to Romans).

Conclusion

James 2 is a challenging passage and is a reminder that just confessing faith in Jesus in not enough. Good works (sanctification) are vital in a true Christian’s life. This concept does not contradict the teachings of the apostle Paul but rather complements them. We as Christians are saved by grace unto good works.


For more on this topic:

Justification by Faith and the Book of James

Doesn’t the Book of James say that faith without works is dead?

James 2:20,26: Are Works a Requirement for Heaven?

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